When it comes to training overhead athletes a strength coach has to take into account the demands that are placed on the athlete through their sport. With overhead athletes, overuse injuries of the shoulder can be extremely common. Because of this many exercises that may not be contraindicated for most athletes are contraindicated for the overhead athlete.
In my opinion, good arm/shoulder care is more than just swapping a barbell bench press for DB bench press and adding some rotator cuff exercises into the mix – it’s about a well thought out, holistic strength program that appreciates the unique needs of an overhead athlete.
Here are a few thoughts;
- Don’t overlook the importance of a strong lower body to work off of.
- Don’t overlook the importance of a strong and stable core to work off of. Anti-rotation work (Pallof Press variations) and anti-extension work (rollouts, body saw, etc) are important for long term health.
- Deadlifting > squatting. Both movements are a great bilateral lower body movement, but the deadlift has a few things that set it apart. Lots of upper back involvement which overhead athletes need. Deadlifting helps improve grip strength (more on that in a second). Also, volleyball and baseball/softball player won’t typically have the same degree of external rotation from one shoulder to another leading to issues with placing the bar across their back. Safety bar squatting would without a doubt be the best option when it comes to squatting.
- Grip strength is strongly correlated to shoulder health. Suitcase carries. Farmers carries. Deadlifting.
- Free the scap. Do as much pressing where the scapula has the ability to move freely. Push ups, landmine presses, bottoms up KB presses are all great pressing movements for overhead athletes.
- Don’t just program sets and reps. Though traditional external rotation exercises make it into the program, the rotator cuff is built for stability and reflex driven which can be trained through compression and distraction of the shoulder. One is going to push the shoulder into the socket, one is going to pull it out of the socket. Think push ups and deadlifting, crawling and carries.
- Med ball work is often overlooked for its ability to help maintain shoulder health. For example, a simple overhead throw is great for core/upper body power, but it also teaches the rotator cuff to decelerate just as it would every time an athlete throws a baseball or hits a volleyball.
- Train outside the sagittal plane. Though this could go for any athlete in any sport, getting outside the sagittal plane is great for long term health, sport performance and proper movement. Single leg exercises, lateral squats, slideboard work for conditioning and lateral sled work all check these boxes.